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What's the difference between Christmas and Yule?

What’s the difference between Yule and Christmas?

Yule and Christmas... there's a connection there, surely. So, what's the difference? Is one Christian and the other Pagan, or is there more to it than that? And why, when decking the halls with boughs of holly, are we encouraged to don gay apparel and "troll the ancient Yuletide carol"? Where does Yule end and Christmas begin?

Of course, to write an article of this nature, we’re going to have to head to the books. Of interest to anyone seeking to dig further, we recommend The Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton, and The English Year, by Steve Roud. Many more great tomes cover this subject, but these are the two we spent the most time with.

The difference between Yule and Christmas

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that ‘yuletide’ is simply a Pagan version of ‘Christmastime’, but of course, it’s not that simple. Steve Roud says, “The word ‘Yule’ is sometimes used as a semi-synonym for ‘Christmas’, but in current everyday language it has the slightly false ring of the deliberately antique.” In other words, those wishing to sound a little bit more Ye Olde might choose ‘Yule’ over ‘Christmas’ to suit their personal aesthetic.

He goes on to explain that, “The word ‘Yule’ predates ‘Christmas’, but its meaning has been so vague in earlier times that it can confuse even the experts… Bede reported that our Anglo-Saxon ancestors used the word to refer to both of the modern months of December and January, and it is clear that after the conversion to Christianity it was also used as the standard word for the festival of the Nativity… The word ‘Yule’ seems to have simply gone out of fashion, as ‘winter’, midwinter’, and ‘Christmas’ took its various meanings.

Ronald Hutton adds to this: “In 1038 there occurs the first recorded appearance of its enduring English name of Cristes Maessan, Christmas. The tradition of 12 days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span.”

So, is Yule a Pagan word, then?

Since ‘Pagan’ officially refers to, “a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions”, it would be wrong to suggest that ‘Yule’ is a word belonging to a belief system that covers many ideas across many countries, using many languages.

According to Ronald Hutton, the word may have entered the English language when, “the 11th century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’… It became popular with the English in the next century, and in the 13th is first recorded in Scotland, where it had become standard vernacular speech by the end of the Middle Ages.”

He goes on to suggest that the word is of Scandinavian, Gothic or possible Anglo-Saxon origin. “In Old Norse it is jol, in Swedish jul, and in Danish juul. The derivation of the name has baffled linguists; it is possibly related to the Gothic heul or Anglo-Saxon hweal, signifying a wheel, or to the root-word which yielded the English expression ‘jolly’. Nothing certain, however, is known.”

Does Yule refer to an ancient midwinter festival, predating Christianity?

As tempting as it is to believe that Yule, or Yuletide, were huge, pre-Christian, Midwinter festivals, neither Roud nor Hutton claim this to be so. As the latter puts it, “The earliest Scandinavian literature does not refer to it but to an undoubted feast in October, ‘The Winter Nights’.

“The learned Snorri Sturlson [writing in the 13th century]… asserted that the pattern had been to sacrifice for an easy winter during ‘The Winter Nights’, for a good crop at Yule, and for a successful fighting season on ‘Summer’s Day’ (in April). He added that Yule had lasted for three nights, the first being Midwinter Night and that of New Year, and that a Christian rule of Norway, Hakon the Good, had made this synchronise with the Feast of the Nativity.”

Of course, both Roud and Hutton point out that such writers on pre-Christian festivities were writing centuries after the fact, and never referred to their sources. The frustrating truth is that we can’t look back on those times with any real certainty.

So, why are we ‘trolling’ the ancient Yuletide carol?

This question has more to do with the changing nature of language. ‘Trolling’ means something very different in modern, social media-influenced English than it did when this song first became popular. Rather than being provocative towards the Yuletide carol, as the modern interpretation of the word might suggest, ‘trolling’ once meant singing loudly, in full voice, much as you might do during Christmas carol season.

And what on earth is a Yule log?

Ask for a Yule log in any supermarket and you’ll be pointed towards the cakes aisle. However, according to Steve Roud, “The idea that a large log should be burning in the fireplace on Christmas Eve was almost universally acknowledged for at least 300 years. It went under various names, such as Yule/Chrismtas log, block, clog, or brand, and could be found over most of the British Isles during that time.”

So, was there a difference between a Yule log and any other piece of burnt wood? There certainly was, and it had to do with perceived luck (Roud points out that it was thought to protect the house from fire and witchcraft during the coming year, much like a modern-day home insurance policy), and that there were occasionally rituals that went along with burning it.

Quoting from an 1886 text, noted down in Herefordshire, Roud writes: “A respectable middle-aged labourer (say 42 or 43) tells me that in his boyhood his father was always careful to provide a Christmas Yule-Log. On Christmas morning he would put a bit saved from last year’s log on the fire, and lay the new log on top of it, so that it might be kindled from last year’s piece. Before the log was quite burnt out he took it off, extinguished it, and put it by to kindle the next log from.”